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Category Archives: panpsychism

Peaks and Troughs of Intensity: From Digital to Analog Embodiment

The above two illustrations, from Shores’ Deleuze’s Analog and Digital Communication; Isomorphism; and Aesthetic Analogy,  which show the translation/transmuation of an analog signal (continuous) into a digital one (discrete), give me room for some (very) lose musings. The first is that we tend to polarize these two kinds of forms. For instance emulsion photography is thought to be analog (as opposed to pixelated digitalization), yet the presence of film grains in an emulsion image tells us that the suspended silver halides indeed do pixelate to some degree.

In such cases the structure of the recording material simply falls away composing differences that make no difference. On the other hand, the pitting in a cd’s material, the consitutent thresholds that make up the recording material, also fall away as differences that make no (additional) difference.

What I want to say is that the discrete elements which are thought to make up digital copying, elements that under some defitions are linked through syntactical (not temporal) powers, are themselves materialized events subject to analogical relations which hold them together. A brain’s neurons which may exhibit something of a binary on/off digitalization, or a computer’s circuit which also expresses on/off threshold states, is part of a structural matrix of other temporal thresholds. Parameters of felt limits contain these peak/valley alternations, conditioning them and orienting them.

Additionally, if we are to ask, Is there a digital-like relationship between discrete elements and syntactical joinings which marks out the behaviors/capacities in abiotic world? Are not the features, lets say in a protein, that mark out differences that make a difference in its production (as a kind if peak or valley), also as discrete joined by the syntax of its structure, giving a protein molecule a digital status, of a kind? And are not the temporal unfoldings of this molecule (or any molecule), when in interaction with its environment, of a continuous and therefore analogical nature? This rock I hold in my hand is exerting discrete differences (joined in a structural/syntactical array) upon the threshold centers that make up the perception field of the hand, (these thresholds also linked through a structural/syntactical array), such that to ultimately separate out the digital and the analogical is to lose their essential interaction and really parallel development. The rock analogically “feels” and records the discrete differences that make a difference of my hand, just as the hand does the rock.

When we construct codified, syntactical wholes (linguistic, conceptual for instance), we are not just abstracting. We are creating new feeling bodies, analogical bodies which reveal their on diachronic expression and recording upon results.

The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness



Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

 Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

John 7:6

Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?


The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

- Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

 Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

Raphael With Hands

The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus - Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand - the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

“Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word "intercession"]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

- Paradise Lost. III 171-173

But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

That it shall never end, so when begin

The father in his purpose hath decreed,

He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

III 184-187

 *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  - Acts 1:7]

Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

Each act is rightliest done,

Not when it must, but when it may be best.

 IV 475-476

How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

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Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten

The Apprehension of World

Through the pleasures of the Internet the author of one of the books I cited in my working development of a Spinozist theory of Exowelt responded to some of my thoughts. Paul Bains, whose excellent, articulate The Primacy of Semiosis I resourced, questioned any need at all for such an Exowelt thought, as he feels that Deely is already sufficiently non-Phenomenological and non-human-centric, two motivations for my working toward an Exowelt conception.

The exchange we had in the comments section seemed a bit scatter-shot between the both of us, but some interesting questions were raised. I repost my last thoughts here (changing the “person” of address), citing from a pivotal passage in Paul’s book which at least for him, conceptually sets the agenda at hand. Perhaps others will find the issues compelling, just as I do:

Here is the relevant passage from your book  that for me points directly to the human-centric framing of the issue for you (and Deely):

“I will seek to elaborate the critical distinction between the animal and human Umwelten – or species-specific objective worlds as Deely presents it. This distinction is timely, because although it has similarities with Heidegger’s treatment of exactly the same question, I will claim that Deely provides a more articulate and nuanced analysis. Those who are shocked by and criticize Heidegger’s “abyss” between man and animal might find this approach of value, even if only to distinguish themselves from it. The ultimate issue is this: To what extent it can be said that a non-languaging, non-human animal apprehends its Umwelt or milileu/envirioning world as a world at all: Deely’s distinction between zoosemiosis and anthroposemiosis intersects with Wittgenstein’s approach to forms of life and expressive capacities that can only exist in language: “We say a dog is afraid his master will beat him, but not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow, Why not?”…The concept of objective being introduced in the preceding chapter (i.e., as something existing only insofar as it exists within awareness) will be seen as providing the relational network for the fabrication of species-specific objective worlds or Umwelten. Deely writes…” (page 60).

Beetles and Things: Why Experience Creates No Sphere

If I could take it piece by piece.

1. I don’t find the distinction between human and animal Umwelten “critical” as Paul does. That is, there is no substantivedifference here, no hierarchy. Or, as Spinoza insists, humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom.

2. While Deely might be more nuanced than Heidegger in regards to the “abyss” he certainly maintains it, and does so in ways that are quite human-centric.

3. Paul’s “ultimate” question is also quite human-centric (not to mention quite rather Kantian flavored with the choice of “apprehension” as the “ultimate” value). I do not accept that apprehending one’s Umwelten “as world” is of critical, ontological distinction at all. This reflective notion is highly Idealist, and Paul is right to bring Heidegger up, a thinker who retains strong idealist, phenomenological roots.

4.While I accept that there are distinctions between zoo and anthropo semiosis, anthropo semiosis is irrevocably joined to zoo. It is zoo. And to this I would add that I do not stop there at the biotic world when I am speaking of semoitic processes. For me semiosis goes ALL the way down. Because Antropo semiosis is zoo, and relies upon zoo, there is no ostensive boundary of “world”.

5.Wittgenstein’s treatment of animals I find most problematic due to the highly eliptical and aphrostic style of his “arguments”. In particular here, the oscillation between “languaging” and “forms of life”. I offer my thoughts on the failings of Wittgenstein’s reading of animals here, if interested: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation  [here].

6. I distinctly reject the notion that there are species-specific Umwelten, pretty much along the same line of reasoning that there are (individual human) mind-specific languages. Wittgenstein’s private language argument’s theme ends up disentangling every boundary.

It is specifically in terms of “experience”, what Deely calls a “sphere of experience”:

{Deely writing]”Elements of the physical environment are networked objectively, i.e., so as to establish the sphere of experience as something superordinante to and strictly transcending, all the while containing partially and resting upon aspects of, the physical environment in its ‘natural’ or ‘mind-independent’ being. Umwelten are thus species specific: No two types of organism live in the same objective worlds, even though they share the same physical environment.”

Just as there is no Beetle in the Box (it gets crossed out) there is no sphere of experience that necessarily is objectively distinct by species. It is only a phenomenological skew of what we think of determinative that ultimately thinks that communication between species is a communication between “worlds”

Or, to put it another way, taking up my notion of Exowelten, because there are real differences in the world that make up the terminus and perceptual limits of our bodies, and the bodies of other biotic and non-biotic forms, any strict species-specific distinction of realms or “spheres” has no ultimate footing. Our “Forms of Life” are already Semiotically Conjoined, and no delineation of experience can unjoin them.


The Finishing of the Web with Text

The Space Left Behind

I provide (in two translations) this wonderful image of the bold spider who in defilement fills in the unfinished portions of Persephone’s weaving loom, with a “text” of its own. Demeter has rushed in to find this Natural World, dark completion of her daughter’s lost life. It is a spectacular inversion of divinity, humanity, text, nature.

Challenge to Panpsychism

Any panpsychist who denies a firm, categorical divide between nature and culture must find a way to embrace the way in which text and web cross to fill each other’s spaces.

1. When she saw the gate-keepers fled, the house unguarded, the rusted hinges, the overthrown doorposts, and the miserable state of the silent halls, pausing not to look again at the disaster, she rent her garment and tore away the shattered corn-ears along with her hair. She could not weep nor speak nor breathe and a trembling shook the very marrow of her bones; her faltering steps tottered. She flung open the doors and wandering through the empty rooms and deserted halls, recognized the half-ruined warp with its disordered threads and the work of the loom broken off. The goddess’ labours had come to naught, and what remained to be done, that the bold spider was finishing with her sacrilegious web.

2. …the web [telas] half-destroyed with confused threads, she recognized, the art of the loom interrupted. That divine work had been lost; a bold spider was filling in the space left behind with a blasphemous weave [textu].

Claudian, De raptu Proserpinae (3.146-158)

Ut domus excubiis incustodita remotis

et resupinati neglecto cardine postes,

flebilis et tacitae species apparuit aulae,

non exspectato respectu cladis amictus

conscidit et fractas cum crine avellit aristas.

Haeserunt lacrimae, nec vox aut spiritus oris

redditur, atque imis vibrat timor ossa medullis.

Succidui titubant gressus; foribusque reclusis,

dum vacuas sedes et desolata pererrat

atria, semirutas confuso stamine telas

atque interruptas agnoscit pectinis artes.

Divinus perit ille labor spatiumque relictum

audax sacrilego supplebat aranea textu.

Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.


 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar's treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

- “Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, [...] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations

I’ve been reading into the depths of the concept of Umwelt which which I have felt some dissatisfaction. It is a concept that exists in a variety of forms, flowing from the much more phenomenological, Kantian enriched experiential world of its inventor, Jakob Uexküll, all the way to heavily systemic, semiotic-functional interpretations which mark its place in much of contemporary biosemiotics. For those unfamiliar with the variety I present a few of these, and article links which may prove interesting reading



Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.

Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.


The expressions ‘collective Umwelt’, or ‘swarm’s Umwelt’, should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umweltsof its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, includethe body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.

Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

 “On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere” Kalevi Kull, Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310 [click here].


The Umwelt may be defined as the phenomenal aspect of the parts of the environment of a subject (an animal organism), that is, the parts that it selects with its species-specific sense organs according to its organization and its biological needs (J. von Uexküll 1940; T. von Uexküll 1982a, 1989). In that sense, the subject is the constructor of its own Umwelt, as everything in it is labelled with the perceptual cues and effector cues of the subject. Thus, one must at least distinguish between these concepts: (1) the habitat of the organism as ‘objectively’ (or externally) described by a human scientific observer; (2) the niche of the organism in the traditional ecological sense as the species’ ecological function within the ecosystem, (3) the Umwelt as the experienced self-world of the organism.

Does a robot have an Umwelt?: Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll [click here], Claus Emmeche

But really the best treatment that I found was from Paul Bains’s informative and provokingly synthetic The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations (2006) [click here]. For those interested in the possibilities of the concept I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on Umwelten (page 56), available on line, and watch Bains skate effortlessly and illuminatingly between Uexküll, Kant, Duns Scotus, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Deely and more. I quote extensively here from the passage in which he explicates the notion via Uxeküll choice of the “tick” (which in well-known fashion Deleuze and Guattari adopts). Here Bains presents the bare essentials of Umwelt  organization, the notion of functional cycle and counterpuntal rhythm.

[Quoting Uexküll] “We are not concerned with the chemical stimulus of butyric acid, any more than with the mechanical stimulus (released by the hairs), or the temperature stimulus of the skin. We are concerned solely with the fact that, out of the hundreds of stimuli radiating from the qualities of the mammal’s body, only three become the bearers of receptor cues for the tick. Why just three and no others?” (J. Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 1957)

The answer for von Uexküll is that living organisms respond to perceptual signs (Merkzeichen) or “meaning” (Bedeutung), not to causal impulses. Physical, chemical, or thermal changes to the receptor organs are interpreted as signs of the (not yet perceptable) “perceptual cues” of an object as counterpart for a specific behaviour. Von Uexküll argues that the “subect” (tick) and the “object” (mammal) dovetail into each other and constitute a systematic whole or functional cycle. The organism or interpreter receives signs from its environment, and these perceptual signs trigger specific action impulses or operation signs (Wirkzeichen). The whole cycle is a process made not of static objects but rather of sign relations – a semiosis. For example, with the tick there are three functional cycles, which follow each other in processual succession…In this functional cycle the mammal (object) is a connecting link between the tick’s effectors and receptors, which metaphorically “grasp” the object like the two jaws of a pair of pinchers. The “perceptual jaw” gives perceptual meaning to the object, and the “operational jaw” gives an effector meaning. For von Uexküll there is a counterpoint or contrapuntal relation between the organism as a “meaning-utilizer” or interpretant, and the perceptual cues or “meaning-factors” of the object – Nature as Music. Living beings develop in a kind of natural counterpuntal “harmony” or refrain, with one another and with their environment. Von Uexküll gives the example of the octopus, designated as the subject in its relation to seawater as the meaning carrier. In this scenario, the fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus’s muscular swim bag. The pumping movement of the swim bag on the non-compressible water propells the animal backwards. Von Uexku/ll claims that the rule that governs the properties of seawater acts on the protoplasm of the octopus, thereby shaping the melody of the development of the octopus’s form to express the properties of seawater. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming – an energetic interpretant.

So the Umwelt is a model of a species’ significantsurroundings. The essential claim is that organisms interpret their environment and are not merely the passive objects of natural selection, as emphasized by much contemporary Darwinian evolutionary biology. The Umwelt/ consists of significant sign relationships. However, von Uexküll, in the prevailing context of Kantian idealism, presented his Umwelt research as a confirmation of a Kantian philosophy of mind

- The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations(2006), Paul Bains, 63-64

I want though to approach the concept from the perspective of a Spinozist understanding, one which necessarily would de-emphasize an phenomenological, or subject-oriented foundational basis. It for this reason that I have been playing with the notion of an Exowelt, under which we conceived of the experiential, but nonetheless epistemic relations between the organism and the world, not as an inner-theatre of apparitional events, but rather necessarily see the organism extended beyond its skin, one in which the Real differences in the world which make up the (semiotic) differences within the organism, may be considered as outlying organs of perception themselves: a running shore of epistemic wholeness.
Part of this can be seen to come out of some of Uexküll’s own images, for instance his appeal the the spider’s web which, spun from its body, literally extends that body, epistemically, physically, out into the world:
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 14)
What if invited by this analogy is, much as how Descartes invoked the Blindman’s cane, it is not immediately clear where the organism itself ends, and the “world” begins. The reason for this I hope to make clear, for at the moment all would still seem contained within the skin-limits of the beast (the treads are merely meant as internal semiotic threads in this case). Let us go further.In that these threads do connect to real things, real difference that make a difference in the organism, we have to deal with exactly how to parse out the internal difference from the external one (a process that Deely marks as essentially ontological univocal). I will suggest that the process takes place just further out than we regularly, and obviously would like to grant.

Essential perhaps is Uexküll notion of the counterpuntal, the musical co-ordination between an “external” stimulus and an “internal” semiotic event. This fundamental binary seems to be the very stuff that presents the internal/external divide at the surface of the body (or thereabouts). Even the simplest of organisms forms a kind of musical echoing of aspect of nature, and does so as a distinction separate entity. We are told by many in Biosemiotics that this minimal exchange is what distinguishes plant and fungus from animal (which are capable of more complex function cycles). The locus of “self” or subject is at most at the internal shore of the semiotic interpretation, where the sign arrives, qua sign, so to speak. And what distinguishes the animal from the human is that humans are able to actually perceive the relationships between counterpuntals, and therefore the very nature of Umwelten themselves.

What I want to suggest is that if indeed what distinguishes counterpunctals is the semiotic interpretation of real events, and that what makes information “Information” are differences that make a difference, it is very difficult to isolate where and/or if the relations between two counterpunctals are experienced or not, since the very structural coherence of the organism is such that the relations are built-in to the very experience of “sense”, the semiotic recursion of the organism. While this event (difference) solicits this kind of reaction, and that event solicits that kind of reaction, we can never deny that the correspondence between the two does not leave some trace on at least higher animals.

To give an example of what I mean by the knowing of connections between differences that make a difference, if my dog and I are walking in a dark, remote part of town and turn down an empty alley, it may very well be the case that in the pit of my stomach I will get “a bad feeling” about the situation. Now this affective response indeed is the semiotic response to Real differences in the world (and perhaps of real events in the past, and/or instinctive reactions), but this is not a “phenomenal” appearance of the world around me (though perhaps shadows now look darker). It is an epistemic judgment that has no location. We could say that my body is undergoing counterpunctal relations (a music) with the entire environment, “reading” it, but from whence is the apprehension of its dangerousness? Which specific differences in the world am I reading as “danger”? The constellation itself presents itself to my organism. Distinct, experiential “awareness” of connections is not locatable as it is largely, if not entirely, unconscious.

Now, my dog who is with me also senses something and the hair on her back is raised. I see this and the hair on my arms goes up. What events in the world colluded to raise my dog’s hair? What variety of counterpuntals speaks to the knowledge of danger? When is it merely the relation between counterpunctals that actually that which is reacted to?

This brings me to my final, determinative point. Morten Tønnessen, in his “Umwelt ethics,” (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003) attempts to bring a ethical joining of Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology and Umwelt theory. It is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition. Therein he mentions in passing how Næss identifies with a mountain, though in a manner which is strictly “subjective” and not “intersubjective”
Although he admits that mountains are not alive in a strict scientific sense, Næss himself claims that he identifies with Hallingskaret, where he has a cottage. Identification, as Næss conceives of it, has no natural barrier, and is not an inter-subjective, but a subjective phenomenon (5)

The counterpuntals  that form the outer reach and reference to the semiotic events within my skin, become themselves linked and signs for extended other differences in the world. This is to say, just what difference an organism is fully responding it can never be precisely determined. One can make a tick drop from a blade of grass by exposing it to the appropriate chemical stimulus, but what the tick is responding to is not butyric acid in some form of one-to-one correspondence (though you can make the tick drop again and again), but rather the tick is responding to the entire constellation of historical/genetic relations between chemical and mammal presence. When I look to my dog and see that she too is reading the world as dangerous the counterpuntal between her hair raised, and mine becomes expressive of other factors of the world. I am literally reading the world off of my dog’s states. My dog has become an organ of my perception.

The key to this perceptual logic is found in Spinoza’s Ethics:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

But I would like to depart from Spinoza’s rigorous and rather satisfying treatment of imaginative Ethics, and look instead to a semiotic, Exowelten, basis for the powers of this transmission of affects, one which will undermine the distinctly “subjective” character of even mountain-identification. And this way forward is provided if we cease to define the boundary of the subject at the skin, or somewhere there abouts, or at the locus of a phenomenological appearance of “outer world”, and realize that epistemically the limits of the organism exist at the locus of real, signifying events in the world, where the spider’s threads connect. The Exowelt is the manner in which contrapuntals open up to other differences that make a difference. This is to say, the differences that make an immediate difference in our organism themselves express relations which are making differences to the depths of an organism’s structure. The reason why my dog can become an organ of perception for me is that our Exowelten overlap, and to a great extent. The differences that form the outer limit of my epistemic body, out to which awareness reaches as how the blindman literally feels the world at the end of his cane, also compose the outer limits of my dog’s epistemic body, such that we are intimately (affectively) and semiotically linked. Ethics are foundationally experientially epistemic; and the organs of our perception go far beyond our ear and eye tissue.

The reason why Næss’s identification with Mt. Hallingskaret is not merely subjective is that subjectivity is necessarily Exowelt-bound, and the very sharing of Exowelt nexus points determines some degree of an implicit inter-subjectivity. And yes, mountains have Exowelten. If a musculature of an octopus’s swim motions can express the rule that water cannot be compressed, then where - what specific sign - in the octopus is this compressibility difference registered as a difference? Where is it “experienced” and making its appearance? And if not locatable, where not do the forces of gravity, wind and sun register their semiotic differences, reflectant in the mountain?

There is much to be said, for instance, about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boudaries and resides in organs of  perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.

So an animal, a thing is never separable from its relations with the world
- Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (125)

Plotinus and the Degrees of Being Conception: Ennead V ii, 1

Ennead V ii, 1: On the Genesis and Order of Things Following The Proto

The Hen is all things
but not a single one [oudè hén];
for the arche of all things is not all things,
but in that particular way it is all things, that is to say thither
they run.
Rather, they do not yet exist,
but they will be.

How then does [it all] come out
of a Simple One which has in itself
no intricate appearance,
nor any kind of folds whatsoever?

It is because there is no-thing [oudèn] in itself
that through this out of itself come
all things,
that Being [tò òn] may be;

through this
he himself is not existing [ouk ón],
he, the progenitor of itself. But as such
this is the prime engendering.
Being complete,
to not seek, to not hold, to not need,
in some kind of overflowing,
and overplenteousness of itself
it has made [pepoíêken] another.

So the becoming to itself
is turned and filled,
born toward itself gazing, &
this is the Nous.
& the-standing-towards-that,
the Being of itself she made, as her view
towards itself is Nous.

As it stood towards itself, that it may see,
out of the same nous it becomes and Is.
This one
now being such as that one,
The likeness [tà hómoia] creates the potency [dúnamin],
pouring out the many
- and this image is of itself -
just as before

the prime of itself poured out.
& out of the substance [tês ousías] this energeia
Is the Soul, the becoming of that abiding
& so the Nous-of-the-abiding-before-itself
has become.
Yet not abiding she creates, but
Motioned she is born
a phantom [eídôlon].

However looking there, whence born,
she becomes full,
Advanced into another motion her contrary she engenders ,
a phantom of herself, sensation [aísthêsin],
the nature [phúsin] within natural things [en toîs phutoîs].

& not one thing before itself has been hung up, or cut off.
For this reason
it appears that the upper Soul comes
all the way into natural things.
For in any way she comes,
as if something of herself is in natural

But surely not all of her is in natural things,
but her coming
into being [gignoménê] in natural things
is in this way,
as far & so much as she advanced downward,
into the sub-stasis [hupóstasis]
her other
creating in her going out

and her eagerness [prothumía] for
what’s worse.
Then that before this,
that coming right out of the Nous,
Allows the Nous to abide in itself.

[the Greek text, édition Kirchhoff]

Why Plotinus?

Some recent posts on panpsychism, Spinoza and the such had me returning to the Ur-panpsychist, as least as I read the history of the thought. It was Plotinus who helped structure the very influential, non-dualistic, Neo-Platonist Christian theology of Augustine, to some degree safeguarding from heresy the conception of an ontology of degrees of Being throughout the Medieval ages and the Renaissance. But Plotinus is dramatically under-read, especially in view of his pivotal, and quite influential position within the history of philosophy. Part of this problem has I believe been due to the translation of his work, his writings/lectures compiled and edited by his student Porphry, The Six Enneads. This is not to say that the translations are poor (there are several recent translations out after a historical dearth), but rather that for me they often still grasp at something in the text emphasizing the wrong, or at least importune, threads. They can either verbosely, or somewhat sterilely isolate the “concept” in the writing, and ignore the texture of it, the dexterity and one might say, the luminosity.

For those interested in the history of panpsychism the above is a translation of a passage that is quite important to many of the thinkers that follow. One may recognized immediately aspects of Hegel (reflexivity to the One), Spinoza (radiating degrees of causal dependence upon the One), and even Deleuze (that things that will be “runs through” the One) and Badiou (how Being is created via the Nous) in the framing of the emanation of Being from the Hen. I hope to discuss some of these in future posts, as they are quite intriguing. I present this passage precisely because, although the Enneads is quite long (more than a 1,000 pages in some editions), it may all really come down to this passage (and a few others). If one grasps this, one grasps a whole historical thread of though stretching nearly 2000 years to the present, a thread that has repeatedly dipped beneath the fabric which is has sewn, only to appear again.

Also, this short passage allows one to deal with metaphysics straight on, in a condensed, small space, to try to take it whole and see what one can draw from it. One asks often, what good is metaphysics? Perhaps with this short passage (and another I hope to post), we can see what is being proposed, and even look to what it means for our very lives, the way that we look at and solve problems.

Notes on the Translation

Obviously, I put it into verse. The purpose of this is several fold. The first that the Greek itself if quite condensed, as the language tends to be, but also as the philosopher can push it; and poetry actually is probably the best formal approximation of this condensation of meaning and effect. The verse form forces a reader to pause and consider the kerneling of phrases, just as the Greek would require. In this sense, the line breaks hopefully serve to translate the relationship between the ideas present such that mere prose could not. In this vein I also tried to steer clear of excessive explication within the text itself. Translators of philosophy in Greek often “fill in” the meaning that they think is implied by word-use and word-choice, in effect erasing the fullness of what is being invoked. (With Plato this is disastrous.) Where the implications are open I tried to leave them as open as possible so that one could continue to think along with the writer.

As to the text itself there are several basic decisions I made:

To Hen: This is Plotinus’ crowning concept, and is universally translated as The One. Quite accurately of course. But because “hen” is also the aorist (past) participle of the verb “hiemi” which means anything from  “to set in motion,” “to hurl,” “to let flow, burst” even in context “to speak”, the Hen is The One, but also The-Having-Set-In-Motion. To restrict its conception merely to the former is to dramatically cleave its meaning. Even this simple translation difficulty I think has lead to a misreading of the very core conception of Plotinus’ view. So when thinking about the Hen, think of both a Oneness, but also a flowing out, an activity.

arche: Is both the principle and the origin. It is something like a foundation, but is more active.

(phuton) phutois: I translate this “natural things” instead of “plants” as many rightful translators do (as in the section that follows he makes the distinction between phuton and the animal without logos, the latter having the power of sense-perception. This is because I believe that Plotinus is not thinking of this plant or that, but rather of the entire profusion of “growth” that is shown in both plants and animals, the raw aspect of what we regularly call and imply by “Nature” per se. This is an important translation point for the general argument of panpsychism that I believe that Plotinus holds.

Nous: Of course this is “mind” often translated as “intellect”.

autos, etc.: Plotinus uses the reflexive to great degree here, and in more than one gender. I direct the meaning toward this itself, himself, herself, though it can also mean “the same” with obvious philosophical precedent.

There are several other points of translation where I differ from the main line, so perhaps as always, check with other translations to get the full spectrum of possible readings. For instance, I take care to maintain the shifts in gender accomplished here, where Plotinus moves from neuter Hen, to a masculine progenitor to a female engendering and a female soul, always looking back upon the neuter, itself.

The translation is not meant as anything to be taken as authoritative, but rather an experiment in form so as to largely provide a gateway for those interested in Plotinus who have not read him directly, and perhaps an occasion for thought, for those who have studied him more closely.

The Pre-eventual in Badiou: Conjoined Semiosis

Nick over at The Accursed Share posts his interesting essay on the problem of the waiting for the event, “What is to be done? Alain Badiou and the Pre-eventual” . His desire to de-emphasize the event is notable, and something I have affinity for, but I simply cannot follow his reasoning one what to do prior to the eruption in the situation. We had some extensive discussion, and still I am not clear on his point (at the very least my stunted comprehension may have brought out even more of Nick’s interesting thoughts for readers).

But aside from commending the essay which is written in a clear, forth-right style, there is a passage therein that gives me to think of my argued notion of Conjoined Semiosis, as Nick writes:

“While the idea of an evental site is clear in the case of a mass movement, is it not also the case that the elements of the presented “mass” are themselves presented precisely as specific family members, specific workers, and/or specific community individuals? In other words, while the elements of an evental site are not presented from the perspec-tive of the state of the political situation, can it not be said that the ele-ments are presented in an alternative situation, such as the community situation, or the familial situation? If this is the case, then the unpre-sented elements of one situation may simultaneously be the fully counted elements of another situation. As such, what constitutes an event and evental site for one situation may be a mere continuation of the status quo for an alternative situation. Or, to put it in other words, what consti-tutes an unpredictable rupture from one perspective is simply a culmina-tion of various, determined causal paths at another level.”

Apart from the bearing of this immediately upon Badiou, it is that very real sense in which there is ever a performative count-as-one, which makes up the semiotic horizon (inside/outside) that maintains itself through an internal coherence. This horizon is extended to include other horizon bound elements, for instance as Nick suggests, families, political unions, etc. which result from the resolution of cognitive dissonances, that is eruptions (events) within the internal coherence. Regularly, at least with human beings (though I believe it can be argued all the way down to the panpsychic), one experiences the rupture of expectation of coherence, even in our moment to moment thoughts, tracing the electric line, the “hole” at the center of consciousness. And these incoherences are then regularly made coherent again through the assertion of new, ordered states of other situations, other bodies with their own semiotic horizons (we judge their source to be either ideational/affective states of other things, our own erroneous or less than coherent internal events, or events in our shared world). What is fundamental though is that these ever eruptive events occur not only outside, in the meta-coherence of our own bodies and other bodies in a shared world (that situation), but also in a way that is not locatable within one of these three domains (self, others, world). The reason for this is that our perceptual bodies, the horizon of our semiosis is necessarily extended out beyond our own bodies, such that within our performative unity there are disruptions that occur neither within, or external to us, but BOTH, as part of our conjoined semiosis with other things. It is precisely this immanence that Nick’s observation of pre-existing situations which perpetuate through an event eruption touches on, how there is ever a continuity within the eruption of the event, a material line of traction, pushing our processes of re-coherence forward.

Some of my thoughts on this matter already posted:

Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies

Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Let the Nuptials Commence

Malebranche and Hume as One

I have posted several comments in critique of, and at times in synthesis with, Graham Harman’s admittedly provisional theory of Causation, partly because it is so damn alluring, so to speak. It practically begs to be questioned for the very boldness of is claims to explain the weirdness of caustion. Here I examine the final pages of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” because it was thesethat defied me a bit, for it seemed that somehow I had missed just the precise kind of connection that Graham proposes, having understood generally what he was outlining.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

David Hume

David Hume

Two Sides of a Misunderstanding
Below I post from the informative conclusion from Graham Harman’s essay, one in which he seeks to bring Hume and Malebranche into complementary contact with each other in such a way to explain the nature of the result he is after. He seems to feel that if we simply let go of Malebranche’s fear of blasphemous atheism, his occasionalism fits hand and glove with Hume’s empiricism and somehow they would work to explain each other:

Hume and Malebranche face opposite versions of the same problem. Although Hume supposedly doubts the possibility of connection, note that for him a connection has actually already occurred: he is never surprised that two billiard balls lie simultaneously in his mind, but doubts only that they have independent force capable of inflicting blows on each other. In this sense, Hume actually begins with connection inside experience and merely doubts any separation outside it. Conversely, Malebranche  begins by assuming the existence of separate substances, but doubts that they can occupy a shared space in such a way as to exchange their forces – leading him to posit God’s power as the ultimate joint space of all entities. Like Hume, we can regard the intentional agent as the vicarious cause of otherwise separate phenomena. The tree and its mountainous backdrop are indeed distinct, yet they are unified insofar as I am sincerely absorbed with both. But more than this: when the parts of the tree fuse  to yield the tree with its single fixed tree-quality, I too am the vicarious cause for the connection of these sensual objects. Even if I merely sit passively, without unduly straining eyes or mind, it is still for me that theseparts have combined. Here, a real object (I myself) serves as the vicarious cause for two or more sensual ones. In the inverted case of Malebranche, we cannot accept the pistol shot of the deity as our vicarious cause, since no explanation is given of how God as a real object could touch other real objects; fear of blasphemy is the sole protection for this incomplete doctrine. Instead, just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one (220)

Graham has indeed identified an important nexus in the split between Idealism and Empiricism, and even brought forth suitable candidates for each school of thought. The problem of course is that I can’t see how he connects these two complimentary visions of the world, but rather leaves them floating there as two mirror reflections which simply do not touch.

One sees this in the paragraph before where he treats the accidents of sensuous objects in our mind. Due to the amphibious quality of accidents of sensuous objects, both belonging to the object and not,  they are the means by which one object able to somehow connect to, and fuse  with other sensuous object in our mind, crossing over whatever buffer had restrained them before:

“Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

This presumably is happening within the Hume side of the equation (though we will see that it might fit better within Malebranche’s representationalism); yet it should be noted, it seems that here it is not human beings or their minds that are doing the fusing, but that it is the sensuous objects themselves, dangling their red lanterns in our mental street, are doing this. Sensuous objects through the power of their allurements, produce the fusion.

This is inner action is for Graham equally complimented by an occasionalist reality of real objects whose parts are not encrusted to it from the outside, (thus creating that sensuous object), but rather whose parts are on the inside  of them, composing them:

“A real object, too, is formed of parts whose disappearance threatens its very existence. The difference is that the parts of a sensual object are encrusted onto its surface: or rather, certain aspects of those parts are fused to create it, while the remainder of those parts emanates from its surface as noise. By contrast, the parts of a real object are contained on the interior of that object, not plastered onto its outer crust.” 

And how do these real, internal parts cohere together so as to make an object? One presumes through each of them, each part holding an accident-driven fusion of their own inner, sensual objects such that they come in contact with other parts. I.e., inside each extrinsically organized object are other extrinsic parts (the occasionalism of Malebranche); and outside each sensuous object are “parts” which are the qualities and accidents which compose it in the perceptual space of an asymmetrical relation, the Intention-as-a-whole, which is a real object. These internal relations are intrinsic to an object (and at least in the first paragraph quoted, marked by a possible Humean explanation).

What is left behind is the very mechanism which actually connects these two, perfectly positioned but unassailable worlds. What is it that makes the sensuous objects which dangle their accidents in order to produce a fusion/connection with other sensuous objects (a processes exemplified by metaphorization), have traction? What makes one fusion of sensuous objects in our mind more powerful, or better than another? What causes the actions or states of a senuous object (is Graham satisfied with the bundling of qualities)? 

An Answer: The Cleaving of Malebranche and Hume

An answer to this proposed marriage between Malebranche and Hume worlds seems obvious. One has to begin from a place in which both the mental inner activity of objects (the sensuous combination of vicars), and the material, real object combinations, are part of one  expressive relation. That is, the insides and outsides are already powerfully and significantly connected, from the beginning: there is no fundamental split into realms.

In order to see how this is philosophically possible or even likely I believe we need to look at is the first half of Graham’s dichotomy, Malebrache. In particular, it is the extensive Malebranche/Arnauld debate that proves pivotal to explaining how contemporary and creative philosophers like Graham can end up with two halves of a mirror without any connection between them. (I follow here the excellent exposition of the debate written by Steven Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas (1989)).

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

As Nadler points out it was in their dispute over just how to interpret the concept of “idea” principally in relation to the philosophical innovations of Descartes, that eventually lead to modern philosophy reading “Idea” as a mediating form between the mind and the world, producing the concordant “veil of ideas” problematic that characterizes much if not all of Idealism, including it seems, its distant descendant Object-Oriented Philosophy.

To put it most briefly, Nicolas Malebranche argued that for Descartes, and properly for philosophy, ideas were indeed mediating representations, literally objects before the mind:

The word idea is equivocal. Sometimes I take it as anything that represents some object to the mind, whether clearly or confusedly. More generally I take it for anything that is the immediate object of the mind. But I take it in the most precise and restricted sense, that is, as anything that represents things to the mind in a way so clear that we can discover by simple perception whether such and such modifications belong to them. (Rech. Eclaircissement III: OC III, 44; LO, 561, as cited by Nadler, 61)

Under such a conception we can immediately see the framework for Graham Harman’s vicars, and even the possibilities of his synthesizing, fusing accidental lures. Malebranche though makes a significant distinction when thinking about ideas: they are quite distinct from “sensations”. Sensations leave us only circulating  within the bare parameters of our soul, with no way out. It is ideas are the very intelligibility, the God-given capacities of representation, through which we are able to pierce through our sensations and connect to the intelligible world. So we see from the start that, far from a simple fear of blasphemy, not only is it God that keeps objects in contact with each other in Malebranche’s occasionalism of change, it is divine intelligibility which also allows us to break through the sensual world, the very same sensual world that Graham Harman is trying to connect to the outside world. When you take away Malebranche’s God, not only do objects not connect to each other, but souls do not connect to the world.

As he characterized the debate,

What is the issue at hand? Mr. Arnauld insists that the modalities of the soul are essentially representative objects distinct from the soul, and I maintain that these modalities are nothing but sensations, which do not represent to the soul anything different from itself(Repose V; OC VI, 50; Nadler 82 ).

Antoine Arnauld, a French Roman Catholic theologian, on the other hand argued (with some inconsistency) that ideas were not representations distinct from our sensuous perceptions, not mediating forms of some intelligibility kind, but rather were actions of the mind in direct perception of the world. As Arnauld summed his understanding of Malebranche’s position, we can detect the roots of Graham Harman’s problem of connection:

At first, he [Malebranche] supposes that our mind does perceive material things. The trouble is only in explaining how: whether it is by means of ideas or without ideas, taking the word ‘idea’ to mean a representative entity distinct from perception. After much philosophizing on the nature of these representative entities, after having marched them around everywhere and having been only able to place them in God, the only fruit that he gathers from all is not an explanation of how we see material things, which alone was what was sought, but rather the conclusion that our mind is incapable of perceiving them, and that we live in a perpetual illusion in believing that we see the material things that God has created when we look at them, that is to say when we turn our eyes towards them; and meanwhile seeing, instead of them, only intelligible bodies that resemble them(VFI, 229, cited in Nadler 89 )

Contrary to this, for Arnauld the mind did not look on and stare at mental objects, intelligible bodies distinct from our sensations, but rather ideas were the very workings of a mind connected already to the world, a position which Steven Nadler calls “Direct Realism”. As Arnauld writes, he makes no distinction in kind, but onlly in relation, between a perception and an idea (a distinct that Malebranche maintains as one of kind):

I have said that I take the perception and the Idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, insofar as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation, the word idea, the later(VFI, 198; Nadler 109 )

There are not two different entities here [perception and idea], but one and the same modification of our soul, which involves essentially these two relations; since I cannot have a perception which is not at the same time my perceiving mind’s perception and the perception as something as perceived (VFI, 198 )

Nadler then traces how it was Thomas Reid, a Scotish contemporary of David Hume, who then (mis)characterized all of philosophy stemming from Descartes as lumpedly conditioned by Malebranchean mediating “ideas” between the mind and the world, adopting Malebranche’s veil of ideas (or “palace of idea” as Arnauld called it) interpretation of Descartes theory. Reid saw himself as the first to break from a philosophy that had been thus plagued by the problem of skepticism,

Modern philosophers…have conceived that external objects cannot be the immediate objects of our thought; that there must be some image of them in the mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they are seen. And the name “idea”, in the philosophical sense of it, is given to those internal and immediate objects of our thoughts. The external thing is remote or mediate object; but the idea, or image of that object in the mind, is the immediate object, without which we could have no perception, no remembrance, no conception of the mediate object (The Philosophical Works of Thomas Reid, 226, cited by Nadler 8 )

“Des Cartes” system of the human understanding, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal system, and which…is not generally received, hath some original defect; that this skepticism is inlaid in it, and reared along with it (Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Chapter 1, section 7; 1764, Glasgow & London)

Through the bottleneck of Reid’s historical interpretation the very possibility of Arnauld’s or Descartes’ “Direct Realism,” which would feature ideas to be read as actions of the mind and not mediating representations, become lost to Idealism’s Representational Cartesianism, of which Husserl remains a positive exemplar.

The Solution: One World, One Process 

My point to Graham’s Hume/Malebranche compliment of each other is that the very dichotomy that Graham finds himself split over, is of a historical creation, in particular one that imposes a separation of worlds, realms or objects, but one that may not even have traction in Descartes its reported origin. Key to a way forward, when considering the transmission of the Idealist problematic, is the kind of direct realism that Arnauld favored, one in which ideas of the mind are taken to be the actions of the mind engaged in perception. Actions of the mind are distinguishing in such a way that they face both outwardly and inwardly. They are unto the horizon of the object/body recursively defined as “ideas” (or semiotic differences), but also understood to be directly caused through interaction with the world.

Arnauld’s reading of ideas though is still tainted to some degree with the essential notion of idea as representation, a picture or image of reality, a functional difficulty which would remain a problem of the Idealism what would inherit Reid’s characterization. And Arnaud is not really consistent on this matter. While he got it right that for Descartes ideas should be best seen as actions of the mind already directly engaged with the world, what was needed was a metaphysical vision in which the kinds of connections that bind objects together in the real world “out there” were the very same kinds of connections that were going on when mental actions were taking place, binding us to the world, connecting that is “out there” to what is “in here”.

And this is exactly the connection between inside and outside that Graham is seeking to establish, although perhaps the best that can be done within the Idealist framework is simply place Hume and Malebranche on two sides of the same miror, such that they cannot touch. But it seems more that Graham has not only adopted Malebrache’s occasionalism of objects, but also places himself well within the heritage of Malebranche’s “palace of ideas” theory of cognition, robbing each of them of their explanatory lynchpin, the very thing each was designed to fortify…God. One is left with objects that do not touch or change with any explanation, and mental objects which serve as representations, but whose means of connection to the world remains opaque.

It turns out though there wasa philosopher who proposed that Ideas were just that, not representations of the world, but actions of the Mind (in my view, making them semiotic). And because his metaphysics was a metaphysics of panpsychism, our internal events were necessarily already external events, all things had an inner life of mental action (precisely what Graham is seeking to connect in his theory of vicarious causation). This philosopher of ideas as mental actions (what he characterized as affirmations of aspects of the body which manifested a degree of power, reality or perfection), was perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the generation that followed the birth of that philosophy, at the cusp of a breaking wave into modernity….the marano, ex-communicated Jew and maker of telescopes Baruch Spinoza.

Each perception is already a belief, it does not come into the human mind neutral, but is an action of the mind, and thus the organism, the object. Each perception, or even imaginary conjuration, is a material change in the ontological sinews which connect that object/body to all others, and expresses both the internal relations of that body, and its causal links to the world. One does not have to pierce  through the veil of ideas or even of sensuous vicars, to get to the world, because one is already part of the world, and each mental action is a change in one’s position in it. There is no veil. There is only strength of action.

Conclusion: We Follow the Body, not the Object

Now to be fair, whereas Malebranche  wanted to separate out ideas from sensations because sensations were the animal half of us, and his intelligibility of ideas was meant to carry us beyond the inner limits of our animal bodies. This is the opposite of where Graham wants to go. His vicars, his representations drip with the sensuous. Their very animal richness is that he suspects provides the link between their internal object nature and real causation (though the mechanism of this link remains as yet unexplained). In a sense it is the presence of the sensation, the way that it supersedes the ideal “essence” of the object that it helps construct, that joins the real body to other bodies. It is this priority in Graham’s philosophy, the way that sensation may clue toward the connection itself, that I believe will break through the mirrored universes of objects he has set up. It is my hope that the great tension between his cornerstone discovery of dual objects (Heidegger/Husserl), and the firm desire to give rightful place to all things which are not objects per se, (qualities/accidents), and create a non-human-centric metaphysics giving rights to even the smallest of things, will produce a rift which will force an abandonment of the concepts of mental action as essentially an act of Representation, and isolation/severance/retreat as a fundamental pre-condition of all ontology. The key, I believe, is recognizing the nature of the connections that already exist, a cognizance which empowers, and not looking to pierce through barriers which produce the illusion of dis-connection. Every wall necessarily is a link.

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

Graham Harman’s Vicarious Causation

Here is a proposed solution, a critique in sympathy, to Graham Harman’s attempt to connect the cut-off but dynamic inner-cores of objects to one another.

I have just read Graham’s “On Vicarious Causation” a marvelous, twisting essay found at his weblog, loaded with original terminology and imaginative construction; not easy to read for its painted universe in which assumption after assumption follow upon each other in a fantastically stacked argument, one in which every page a reader wants to cry out, “But wait, what about…” and yet finally has to relent and just let it carry its somewhat unsatisfying course. And finally, I see what he is trying to say/construct about causation. Enchanting but perhaps absurd.

Despite my many reservations the composite of it comes into view exposing a topography not at all very foreign to my own, so as I pull back I feel that I can glimpse something of an answer to the “unicorn” that Graham seeks, and additionally how his deeply thought distinctions help guide my own attempted synthesis of Campanella toward Spinoza and then post-post-modernity.

If I were to be general about it, Graham, because he is deeply influenced and carries over along with the terms much of Husserl’s Cartesian Idealism, is concerned with the traditional problem of how the inside of our minds connects with real objects out there (just what Descartes thought on); but because he wants a de-centered, non-human ontology of effects, he is at pains to find terms which graft the poetically powerful descriptions of our internal experiences onto a concrete and real, outer-object consubstantiality. (There is also the traditional Idealist question of “other minds” haunting his project.) He wants to drive down into the vivid distinctions we can make about our internal sensuous worlds, and somehow come up on the other side in such a way that what he is saying about human beings can be said, objectively, about all things, down to the merest speck of dust.

The problem of this, the hard current he swims against as far as I can see it, is Representation (the Idol of Idealism). One gets the feeling that if he can work himself free, off from this coat-hook, he might really find a way down through the worm-hole to the inside of objects, making a poetically rich and rigorously dynamic philosophy for the world.

This difficulty of Representation, which I will return to below, is further encased by Graham in a wonderful binary which not only preserves the difficulty, but also gives it its greatest facility. Pictured above we have the two halves of an affinity, or really a complementarity between the kinds of objects that Heidegger played with (on the left) and the kinds of objects Husserl enjoyed (on the right). Deep down in the Ur-Spring of his study Graham realized that these two, Heidegger’s tool-object and Husserl’s Intentional object in a way mirrored each other (something I argued in critique of an essentialized optical centrality metaphor that they shared). What Graham faces in his prospective theory is how to reconcilethesetwo primary and incompatible world objects such that the every day sense of the causal world that we experience remains intact, but even more richly described (such that the underbelly of its relations becomes exposed, as metaphysics). What Graham realizes is that if indeed we are trapped with the still Cartesian sphere of the mental (intention), yet insideour bodies, how is it that we come in contact with the outside “real” world.

Instead of taking an approach that undercuts the very problem itself, as many lines of philosophy have arisen to deal with what has been perceived as the Cartesian problematic, we should do as Graham does, and burrow in, to the heart of the difficulty, attempting to take on as many of the assumptions and terms as possible, and see if we can come out on the other side. If we assume a Husserlian-like zebra (on the right), and a retreating Heideggerian zebra (on the left), how is it that we can drive deeply enough into the one so as to reach the other – and, to do so in a way that our description fits neatly with what non-human zoas, and inanimate objects alike all do the same thing?

I think though, the place to begin is Representation. I have written a few times recently on the question of Representation vs. Signification ( Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?; The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism; The “ens reale” and the “ens rationalis”: Spelling Out Differences), and much of my reading will come out of the fullness of this distinction. But I think it can be granted that fundamentally Graham’s take of causation is on based on a Representationalist conception of mental activity. This no doubt comes from his Husserlian heritage. Consciousness is defined by its capacity to form a mental “object”  (its intentionality), and this object in some sense is taken to be a representation, a Re-Presentation as some emphasize, of the external, real world. Graham is not far from this at all, and in fact seems to be at least from the start, right in the mainstream of this scheme of mind. And this representation for Graham is called a “vicar” or a “deputy” (with satisfying poetic license that nicely undercuts any pretension to a psuedo-scientific language), someone of course represents someone or something else. The mental object, what is called here also the “sensuous object” comes to be used as something of a representative in the political sense, and one cannot help but think of him as some kind of bejeweled intercessor, some decadent of the Church (or at least I cannot help it). Graham allows us to think that the external object is in some sense projected into, crossing the external boundary of the object that is “you” (or a rabbit or a tree), and enters into this rich inner realm in a specular way. The language he uses is inordinately suggestive, and I think that this is a strength of his philosophy on causation, and key to what he is driving after. He does not want simply to explain, but evoke.

So when I see a zebra (we must begin with the ideal human exemplars of consciousness, he tells us), the zebra somehow enters into our private, richly embued world, as a vicar-zebra, a representative. As such it/he is a fantastical kind of creature under Graham’s description. It shares the same “perceptual space” as the effects that seem to cover it, a shimmering “encrustation” of “accidents”, all of which could change and yet the vicar who has come to interact with us would remain the same (he gives the Husserilian example of the angles of a chair). These accidents frost over this representation, swirling in a delightful way, but due to their sharing of a “space” they do not retreat from the essence, but rather are almost magnetically attracted to it, clusting about its unique essential gravity (at least that is how I read the evocations Graham provides). These faceted accidents are to be distinguished from the vicar’s “qualities,” things that if they did change might threated the coherence of vicaras this vicar, so really we have a stabilized essential representation that has come to us, in our private inner universe, and there is a halo of effects which circulate about it at varying degrees of essentialization, until we get down to a bare sensuous core object which is composed of this interaction of satellites and encrustations.

Something should be said about the meeting of this vicar within us. It is not clear to me whether we met the vicar through the proxy of our own inner vicar (let us say, Freud’s Ego), face to face in some kind of virtual pow wow, or if it is simply a question of the vicar of the zebra interfacing with the totality of my real object. It seems to be the case of the latter for Graham, for he calls this relation an “assymetrical confrontation,” a kind of hybrid object consisting of the real object that is me, and the deputized zebra within me, but then again, he insists that there is something particular about how the zebra-duputy object and “me” remain distinct, segmented, which connotes a sensuous separation:

“For in a first sense, I clearly do not fuse with the tree in a single massive lump; it remains distinct from me in the perception. This give the strange result that in my intention of the tree, we both inhabit the interior of the total intentional relation.” 

 As far as I can tell, there is a strange conflation of the “real object” me and the “sensuous object” me in the relation that Graham proposes, or at least he does not fully discuss status of the mechanism of this interaction. In a kind of inside-outing of the glove the vicarious object and the real me are folded into a composite third object, “the intention as whole,” a whole that itself forms a real object:

“The pine tree and I are separate objects are residing on the interior of a third: the intention as a whole…we have a real intention whose core is inhabited by a real me and a sensuous pine tree.”

In this inversion there are several potential problems here, especially for a philosophy that is looking to decenter human importance. Graham seems to privilege (or at least not problemize at all) the human Subject (“me”) as an unified whole object (qualifed as”real”), residing on the inside of an asymmetrical object, also real. Why this “me” is qualified as “real” and not sensuous in its own right, I cannot tell, other than it allows Graham to construct a meeting ground of two realms he would otherwise like to think of as wholly distinct (thus this “real” status of the “me” plays something of the role that Descartes’ hallowed pineal gland, where the two symmetries of Idealism’s twin realms “touch”, albeit still locked within a third object, “the intention as a whole”). At the very least this unproblemized “me” as unified object, and then this status of “me” as real object create openings for strong critical currents for this model of the world. (A further and perhaps quite compelling consequence of this looping is that if the intention-as-a-whole is itself a real object, and every real object also can have an intentionality, what would it mean for an “intention-as-a-whole” object to itself have an intention? Perhaps I missed it, but I do not see this obvious consequence of the terms addressed.)

But if we grant Graham this apparatus of an “asymmetrical confrontation” with the real object of the intention we can go further to explore. The difficulty Graham has with his own account is the explain just how, even given the touching of two different kinds of objects (the proxy zebra and the real “me”), how is it that the real zebra actually effects the real me (a traditional problem of Idealism). That is, even if the intention is indeed an asymmetrical combination of a real “me” and a vicar zebra, how ever does the real me interact effectively with the real zebra? What is the mechanism, the means? In the political world when I interact with various deputies of power there are real channels which connect me to those that the deputies that represent real authorities. And there seems to be something of this that Graham has in mind. He does not say it but there is the sense that because I am a citizen and thus can act vicariously in that legal world of rights and procedures, my “me” can connect to things that are not of my nature, for instance, as a citizen I can vote and thus register effects on the political process. Or, I can, represented by an attorney in court sue the legal aspect another person or corporate entity. This connectivity through what-you-are-not, representatively, is what seems to be beneath how Graham is imagining  the way that “real objects” connect. And one cannot help but feel that as such he beautifully sees them as burrowing under, wormholing to the insides of each other, leaving their real object exteriors untouching. I sue you in court, legal entity to legal entity, but our real objects never come in contact, or so it goes.

I think the poetics of this are fructifying, but there are some substantial conceptual barriers. So let us go further. In order to understand this worm-holing causation, a reaching into the inside of another object, one has to see the complementary notion of real and sensuous objects that Graham assumes. Sensuous objects are rich in connections which multiply across each other on the interior, though they do not fuse into a huge blob of phenomenal effects, they are “buffered” even in their interaction we are told. Real objects though, taken from a Heideggerian notion that Graham has excavated from the German Existentialist, are marked by a failure to interact with other objects. Unlike the senuous vicars within us, clustered about with accidents and qualities, the real objects that we engage with in the world retreat ever from their qualities and accidents, tumbling away from us. As we reach for a thing, a marble, an ice cube, a woman’s hand, it falls away from whatever surface interactions we bring about with it, a blackhole of a sort. Thus, the only way that we do actually engage with it is in a subterranean fashion, from within our border. In his descriptions he is much not all that concerned with the other sideof the relationship, if indeed we do bubble up on the other “inside” of the object or not, for he is much more concerned with the problem of how our insideconnects to the outside itself, the real object, thus a question of causation and not communication (two issues I take to be inter-dependent), although he uses metaphors of communication (signals) to describe what happens in “contact”. Graham seems to have an investment in an essentially “cut off” existentialism which creates real islands of objects, each a poetic micro universe, something he would not even come out of if he didn’t have to explain something as pressingly elemental as “causation”.

For this reason he speaks of the problem of causation mostly in terms of how real objects pierce the veil of our sensous inner worlds, as he beautifully puts it:

“We must discover how real objects poke through into the phenomenal realm, the only place where one relates to another. The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensuous plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.” 

Or, drawing on the burrowing metaphor, but neglecting just what happens on the other (in)side, in the hermetic quarantine:

“There is a constant meeting of assymetrical partners on the interior of some unified object: a real one meeting the senuousvicaror deputy of another. Causation occurs when these obstacles are some how broken or suspended. In seventeenth century terms, the side-by-sideproximityof real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intensionandanother real object lying outside it. In this way shaves or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remained quarantined in private vacuums.”

One can see this one-way vision of the problem in Graham’s notion that causation can occur in simply one direction. For instance in his recent lecture on DeLanda he talks of what he imagines happens when a semi truck slams into a mosquito at high speed. Presumably the truck sends a rather powerful vicar into the internal universe of the insect, but the insect sends noneat all into the sensuous realm of the truck, for Graham. It is a one way communication. The problem as it is set forth in Vicarious Causation really seems to be: How do we get outsideofour locked in realm of richly endowed vicars and deputies, how do we get outside of the videogame of our inner worlds?

Vital to this path is the realization that there must be a bond between my inner sensuous experiences and some outer really, i.e., I am not just existing in a solipism of phenomenal affects, the swirling of frosted objects and their accidents. There must be a “connection” (one of the five kinds of relations proposed: containment, contiguity, sincerity, connection, and none), and it is this “connection” that Graham is having difficulty explaining:

4. CONNECTION. The intention as a whole must arise from a real connection of real objects, albeit an indirect connection. After all, the other possible combinations yield entirely different results. Two sensual objects merely sit side by  side. And my sincere absorption with trees or windmills is merely the interior of the intention, not the unified intention itself. Hence, a real object itself is born from the connection of other real objects, through unknown vicarious means.

At this point I’m going to try to work myself free from the imposed restrictions in order to solve this fundamental barrier, while at the same time trying to preserve as much as possible the poetics of Graham Harman’s worm-holed connections between objects. The first thing to say is that part of how we constitute mental objects is that we not only perceive them as essences under this apparition or that, but we also perceive that a real object is actively causing our “vicar” to take on one aspect or other. That is, the zebra in our mind takes on a substantive coherence due to the implicitly causal relation it has to us, in a shared world. Events that happen to the real zebra could also happen to us, the real us. If a lion leaps out at the zebra who is on the grass plain that we share, we cringe and duck not only because there is a sympathy between us, but because we also could be attacked, and we understand that. This organizational triangulation between the real object out there, and our real object out there is consubstial the core of what sensemaking is. In other words, the “connection” that Graham is trying to find in the “jigsaw puzzle” of his terms and realms is woven into the essential animal natures of nearly all living things, the understanding that “that thing out there” is reporting in an informing way about the world because it is in some vitally important way “like us” (if only capable of being attacked by a lion). This at least goes for human beings to rodents, and should form a cornerstone of any conceptual attempt to bridge the connections between inside and outside, not to mention human to lower forms of life as mutual actors in the world.

In answer to this a fundamental and imaginary perception of causation is put forth by Spinoza in his principle of the “imitations of the affects,” upon which the social realm is founded. This principle may go a ways to enrich just what causation means to us and other things:

“If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect” (EIIIp27) 

To this effect and additionally, this same triangulation of report, the way that we confer importance and coherence upon objects in the world (and one would say in the Harmanian sense, their vicars in our molten, cavernous worlds), is also put forth in terms of human beliefs and the translatabilty of others in Donald Davidson’s Principle of Charity and Triangulation of Three Knowledges, something I will return to below. Objects means something to us largely because they report or reflect back significant forces in the world which pertain to us. We might allow that such objects might retreat from us ultimately in the Heideggerian sense (tool-analysis) in a vaccuum packed vertigo of essence as absence, but our attraction to them, the particular way in which they do “allure” us, is not simply that they sparkle, but that they sparkle and shine with determinations which point us to other significant aspects of the world (there is a lion in the grass with us).

This voluminous factor of just what does “matter” about an object or a situation is utterly absent from Graham Harman’s hunt for the connection between our inner worlds and real objects, the very thing that helps constitute us as real objects in the first place. I sense that this is largely due to the Idealist, binary assumptions of his starting point, one which imprisoningly conceives of knowledge as some form of representation or reflection of the world, and thus, the epistemic problematic as how to connect these two world, spirit/matter, mind/body, and now for Graham, sensuous-object/real-object. What is needed is to break out of these splitting binaries, give up the imaginative algebras that wish to balance out both sides of the equation so that we can cancel out enough of the variables and end up with what “x” is. And the first step of this is to realize that other objects appeal to us, matter to us, due to a primary assumption of connection through veritable report, as cause: events in the world (lion’s leap) co-ordinate between that object over there (zebra) and this object over here (my body). The connection is implicit and necessary (though ever under revisement and interpretation)

But this is not to say that Graham’s architecture of metaphysics does not have profound possibilities for development in my view. For one, I find his fusion of the sensuous object and real “me” into a new real object “the intention as a whole” an instructive one. While I have been perplexed why, under the categories imposed, within the intention as a whole the “me” is a “real object” and not a vicarious representation of me, creating the asynmetry that Graham wants, I believe that asserting the real object status of this “me” interaction is the right step (leaving behind any notion of the Subect though). The reason for this is that by virtue of our internal relations, the “sensuous” realm, we make real-object changes in ourselves which alter our dynamic relations with the world. The things we think are actually real material changes in our bodies, and then consubstantially change our connections to other objects (it is this connection of the connection that Graham is after).

Here I would like to bring in another Spinoza concept that is well-fitted to the question so to use it as a launch point for a possible Harmanian solution. Spinoza too asserts an entirely privatized world of inner experience and affect, one in which we do not really know objects in the world directly, but only know events within ourself, what he calls the ideas of the affections of our bodies. If I know the gentleman Peter, it is really only that I know my body as it is in various states, under certain affections, one might say, only the vicar of Peter (but not a picture of Peter). What guides us from this hermetic realm of vicar Peter to powerful action in the world? There are two things that form Spinoza’s answer. The first is Joy or Pleasure. That is, we imagine things, we form the vicar of things driven by a guideline of what feels best. The real pleasure we are feeling, as even the simplest of organisms, is that which pushes us towards the real connections with world, and in fact for Spinoza constitutes a change in these connections. There is very little of this discussed in Graham’s treatment, but there is one way in which he touches on this aspect of guiding pleasure in the vital concept of “allure”. Allure is the thing, the aspect, that erupts out on the vicar so encrusted with accidents which separates out an otherwise inseparatable “quality” from the essence of the object.

“The separation between a sensual object and its quality can be termed ‘allure.’ This term pinpoints the bewitching emotional effect that often accompanies this event for humans, and also suggests the related term ‘allusion,’ since allure merely alludes to the object without making its inner life directly present. In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality, since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface.”

Here Graham is playing with the two aspects of allure: to seduce, and to allude. We are asethetically seduced, thrown forward in pleasure toward the “real object” (we realize a disjunction, and we do so through a connection). But for Spinoza, it is not just that Pleasure and Joy push us towards the connection, but also that such experiences also form real changes in our bodies. We are given to think this thought after that thought, this rather than that because we are actively affirming aspects of our own bodies (General Defitions of the Affects), affirmations which directly confer alterations in our degrees of power, Latourian changes in degrees of Being. I have great affinity for the linking of our ability to act in the world and be constituted as objects through the power of metaphor, being allured and alluding to something beyond; but something more than this has to be at play (and the very tenousness of Graham’s solution testifies to this). For a thinker like Spinoza there are two kinds of improvements in the capacity to act. There are the moment to moment fluctuations of pleasure and pain, random increases and decreases in connection (which may fall to the feet of good and bad metaphors or jokes for Graham), a happenstance fortune, but then there are the comprehensive increases in the capacity to act which come from possessing more adequate ideas about oneself and other things in the world – connecting and building on our knowledge of those connections. The speculative imaginations and interplay between vicars and deputies all frosted over with gems or patinas of an inner world, a comes-and-goessea of rich affections, is also supplimented by a fabric of operative cohesion, the way in which we can systematically and bodily combine with other objects forming more powerful living wholes.

Containment: The Closed Loop of Mental Acts

In this way the principle of containment that Graham puts forth is an embodiment of Spinoza’s parallel postulate, that all our material constructions are also mental ones:

1. CONTAINMENT. The intention as a whole contains both the real me and the sensual tree.

As I pass from thought to thought, affirming one aspect of my body or another, giving me more or less reality than before, the “containment” of the sensuous vicar within me is simply the vectorization of the real ontological change that occurs by virtue of my intentional shiftings. And these, though enriched by metaphorical allusions to object states beyond my inadequate pictures of them, are re-anchored, are given traction by the very mutuality of world, and the power of causal explanation in the first place. The vicars of my world are vivified through their expression of the matrix of my real interactions with the world (they stand not only in the place of the real object they supposedly represent, like a local priest does the Pope, but also stand for the constitutional relations which make up that object, beyond that object). In this sense, it is not just the allure of the separation of the quality of the whole, destabilizing the vicar, that leads us forward, but also the powerful signification of accidents themselves. For as Graham states of the accidents of a sensuous object, they have a “dual status”:

“Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object, like streamers on a maypole, or jewels on a houka. Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

But accidents do not simply happen, they point, they indicate. Their dual status directs us to connections and allows us to see that they are not accidents at all. The look of fear and tension that ripples across the body of the zebra is the vibrant, electric line which connects the lion mid-air to our own own selves, not to mention the vivacity of the grass plain. It is through the accident that we realize that we are already composed as a multi-object in which the accident was no accident at all, but an indication. So when Graham lays down the very reach of what his conclusion can provide, the suggestive depths of the object exposed by allure:

“The key to vicarious causation is that two objects must somehow touch without touching. In the case of the sensuous realm, this happens when I the intentional agent serve as vicarious cause for the fusion of multiple sensual objects: a fusion that remains only partial, encrusted with residue accidents. But in the case of real objects, the only way to touch a real one without touching it is through allure. Only here do we escape the deadlock of merely rolling in the perfumes of sensual things, and encounter qualities belonging to a distant signaling thing rather than a carnally present one. The only way to bring real objects into the sensuous sphere is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they no longer fuse into a new one, as parts into a whole, but rather become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: a real object.”

what is not grasped hold of firlmly enough is the positive bodily assemblage of our bodies with other bodies that is continously going on through an essential perception of causation and reflectional report. If it is true that other real objects indeed retreat ever away from their qualities, and that allure and accidents to the essence of internal vicars constantly destablize our mental objects, this only provides a base ground of a much more conscienable construction of our bodies as affectively in combination. The retreat of other object/bodies provides the occasion for our mutual co-construction.

Campanella: To Know is to Be

It is here that I would like to introduce Campanella’s golden contribution to modern epistemology, a principle that has been long excluded from having influence. To know something, Campanella tells us, is to become it…literally  to become it. What is happy about Graham Harman’s reclamation of the word “essence,” rescued from its various deconstructions, is that it puts us back in touch which Late Renaissance and Late Scholastic thought which worked imaginatively and constructively with the concept. And although I have complained that Graham’s operation from pure Idealist and Representationalist assumptions, it is his embrace of the concept of “essence” that reanimates the possible importance of Campanella’s thought. In fact, his wonderfully designed “asymmetrical confrontation” between the sensuous object and the real me in a new “whole intentionality” comes very close to Campanella’s notion that we indeed, when we come to know something actually are transformed into it. In Graham’s version we are transformed into a hyper-object which is constituted of a real “me” and the sensuous vicar of another object. 

Let me present a few select quotations which include the presentation of the idea so as to give some occasion for a comparison:

“cognoscere est esse” – “Everything knows itself to be, is contrary to non-being, and loves itself. Therefore, everything knows itself through itself, and it knows other things not through itself, but inasmuch as it becomes similar to them. This similarity is so great that one thing perceives other things by perceiving itself changed into, and made, the other things, which are not what it is itself.”

- Del Senso pp. 83-4

So then with sensation [sensatio] would be assimilation, and all knowledge [cognition] is possible because of the fact that the knowing essence of a thing becomes [facio] the object to be known. Having become the object itself, it knows it perfectly, for it already is the object, therefore to know is to be; therefore anything that is multiple, the multiple knows, and what is few, few.

- Met., II, 6, 8, 1, p. 59a

“I admit that in all created things such a reflexive knowledge [of the soul], as well as the knowledge [that the soul has] of other beings, is only an accident. It comes from the outside, and the intellect understands them [i.e. other beings] insofaras it knows itself changed into, and made, them. But as far as the essential and original knowledge of one’s self is concerned, I firmly hold with Augustine that the intellect, in its act of understanding, does not differ in any way from the object of its understanding.”

- Met. II, 6, 6, 9, p. 36b

There are a few immediate challenges of vision to Graham Harman’s two-kinds-of-objectsworld, at least in terms of the direction of thought. The first is that Campanella’s process of assimilation seems to run at cross current to the Heideggerian idea of objects forever in retreat from their qualities. Instead of a world where real things tumble back into an infinite depth, human beings (and for Campanella all things) instead actively combine with and literally become the things that they come to know. Their entity is transformed into the entity of other things, thus in some sense their essence into those essences. But while this process of ontological transformation seems quite alien to Graham’s Heideggerian absences, there does seem some affinity to Graham’s inner-world sensuous/real object combinations through whole intention. At the very least we combine with and become in composite the vicars of other things, and thus to some degree with other things. In fact, I think that Graham and Campanella are saying very similar things when they talk about the creation of a change, a new intentional object. Like Graham, Campanella asserts a distinctness between oneself and what one has come to be (called by Campanella the difference between “innate” knowledge of one’s essence and “illate” knowledge of other things, including oneself reflexively), but this does not foreclose genuine transformation, the way that I combine through self-tranformation. But contrary to the difficulty of an unbridgable chasm between one’s own object and other object (how does the real touch the real), this new composite transformation, the assimilation, has genuine powers of awareness of its own, a new essence if you will. One has already become the object under contemplation and is already perceiving the world through its horizon. The separation between real objects thus in Campanella is lapped over.

Commentators have been confused by the seeming contradictions in Campanella’s metaphysics of assimulative becoming. How can one remain oneself, an essence with innate knowledge, and yet be transformed into a new thing, accidentally, forming illate knowledge, a transformation which itself has perfect knowledge. The answer to this contradiction I believe in part lies within just Graham’s own composite object he calls “the intention as a whole”. But also in part in the Spinoza advisement that such an intention-as-a-wholeis itself a real change in reality in relation to all other things. Its very affectures vectorize in real connections to other real things, and this vectorization expresseses itself in both the organisms experiences of Joy and Sadness, and in real world capacities to act. The reason why this is so is that the human boundary (or the human Subject) provides no priority of boundary in the world. It is always cross-cut and in combination with other bodies/objects with which it is in assimilation. Campanella’s view is one of expansive corporation, given the ground that each thing is already part of one great animal existence, the animal of the world.

An illustration may suffice. Instead of Heidegger’s hammer, let us speak of the surfer and his wave (the same dynamics occasion themselves). When surfing a wave to talk of the essence of the wave which is forever in retreat from its qualities is superfluous of the act. In the act, even to speak of the absolute separation of the surfer and the wave does not realy help, for, in a certain regard the surfer and the wave have become one thing, expressing mutually a series of dynamic forces. To put it in Harmanian terms, the real object of the surfer has combined through its intention with the vicar of the wave which is clustered with various accidents and qualities such that these deputized effects produce a new object real surfer/sensuous wave. I sugggest that the example shows what disservice the model does to actual human interfaces with the world. It is much more that the surfer has entered into and become the wave, been transformed into its entity to the degree that it is now reading the world beyond their combination through what Graham would otherwise call its accidents. In fact though the surfer does not likely have the object of the wave at all in his/her mind, but rather is concentrated solely on the patternings of these accidents, their readable, expressive rhythms and force which do not really constitute an object of their own. These “accidents” instead express the dynamic relations within the mutual object wave/surfer/board such that a relative stability and forward progressing vector is sought. They are internal to that kind of object, where the boundary of where one is, and through what one is reading (a limit of the board, one’s toes, one’s hamstring strength, a counter current tugging of the wave form, whitewater upsurge) is ever under negotiation, passing in and out.

This readability through other objects as also actively engaged in the world, and our ability to combine with them in telling, epistemic assemblages (harkening back to Spinoza’s notion of the imaginative imitation of the affects which grounds the social) points not only to the revelatory capacity of objects as they necessarily express their own interiors (making pale the significance of a Heideggerian retreat), but also points to the very insufficiency of the notion of “sensuous object” itself. Last night I was laying in the dark and listening to my cat purr in the dark. My mental activity was not composed of “listening to an accident of my cat’s essence” and the purr itself did not constitute own object (for it had no accidents or qualities that I held in juxtaposition), I simply was traveling along with the sound, riding out on its cadence. This turns our eye back to a criticism with which I opened this post, the idea of Representation as the exemplar of mental activity. As I have criticized elsewhere, this object-orientation of Graham’s grows from an Idealist rooting, Husserl’s outright Cartesianism, a philosophical assumption I call Central Clarity Consciousness [ Downunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC) ]. Out of the presumption that intentionality is essentially the creation of a representing object comes Graham’s thinking of the vicar of some external, real thing. The true difficulty though comes in Graham’s ambition to work his metaphysical priniciples down out of the human world and end up with a world in which human actors, or even biotic actors are not the only things which have standing. If Graham would have stayed simply in the human realm he would perhaps be satisfied with something like Kant’s Idealism. But he does not:

Whereas Kant’s distinction is something endured by humans alone, I hold that one billiard ball hides from another no less than the ball-in-itself hides from humans. When a hailstorm smashes vineyards or sends waves through a pond, these relations are just as worthy of philosophy as the unceasing dispute over the chasm or non-chasm between being and thought.

The mental activity that cuts human beings off from all other objects is not to be something which only human beings are burdened with. All objects suffer from this original sin of “hiding essences”. The entire universe is alienated from all of its other parts, and the only problem is the problem of “caustion” (wherein clearly we see that the entire Universe is actually in some sense connected to the rest of itself). In this way has simply taken the chasm between human beings and all things and distributed it down through the layers of animation. And has set up for himself not only the difficulty of describing the connection between human beings and other objects (a connection which he can only allude to), but then takes this difficulty of connection down into the depths of all objects, inanimate or otherwise. How can we be generous enough notto say that Graham has begun with a simple problem, an essential conception of knowledge as representation, and then multiplied it to near infinity. Well, the answer seems lies in the obverse of Graham’s chasm, that things (and human beings) are already connected, and that the nature of this connection is key to understanding just what mental activity is. If we are to have a post-human, de-centered philosophy which does not privilege human “access” to the world, we really must let go of the notion that mental activity itself, even human mental activity, is not essentially a question of representation, and thus not certainly a question of “object”. What this does to Graham’s project I cannot tell, but if one does not make this move, one is forced to answer such questions as, “What does it mean for a oak desk to hold the ‘vicar’ of the fountain pen that lies upon it?” or, “How does a tree ‘represent’ the breeze to itself?” or “What composes the ‘accidents’ of the ‘deputy’ of my person in the rag doll I am holding?” As long as we confine ourselves to a primary notion of inner, senuous objects which either do or do not match up with external real objects we are forced to an incredible projection into depths of all kinds of inanimate materials in which there seems to be no means of giving them conceptual anchorage. Unless one pulls back into the Idealist human-centered world of Kant or Husserl or Hegel, it seems one has to give up the notion of object as representation altogether.

The Sincerity of Objects

Graham is not numb to this problem, and in his essay on vicarious causation seeks to overcome it. And he does so in an admirable way in the notion of “Sincerity”. Sincerity is the Harmanian word for Intentionality, and it is through sincerity that Graham hopes to sink the human experience of objects down into the animal world, and hopefully down into the abiotic world of material inanimate things. He defines sincerity variously, but generally as a kind of directed absorbtion, at the categorical minimum of the contact between a real object and a sensuous one (instantiating his own terms in a near defintional circle):

“For our purposes, intentionality means sincerity. My life is absorbed at any moment with a limited range of thoughts and perceptions. While it is tempting to confuse such absorption with ‘conscious
awareness,’ we need to focus on the most rudimentary meaning of sincerity: contact between a real object and a sensual one.”

I am not clear at all how “sincerity,” as it is defined as asymmetrical touching differs from “conscious awareness” for Graham, but perhaps this attempted distinction is an artifact of Graham’s resistance to panpsychism. Generally though, sincerity is a projection of human experience, marked by the expense of energy in some kind of directed attention:


3. SINCERITY. At this very moment I am absorbed or fascinated by the sensual tree, even if my attitude toward it is utterly cynical and manipulative. I do not contain the sensual tree, because this is the role of the unified intention that provides the theater of my sincerity without being identical to it. And I am not merely contiguous with the tree, because it does in fact touch me in such a way as to fill up my life. I expend my energy in taking the tree seriously, whereas the sensual tree cannot return the favor, since it is nothing real.


The question is, just how far down can the concept of sincerity go on the biotic and inanimate ladder. Is it robust and facile enough a concept to travel far enough so as to grant full nobility to (and thus also explain) the mechanism of causation of even the simplest actors in the world. In my “The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism” I speak of the difficulties of reading the prospectively panpsychic actions within the most inert objects, and there seek to define these internal events semiotically, that is, as horizon-defined indications. So when there is a causal effect upon a body, events within that body perform a kind of double duty. They mutually signify actions within the horizon of the body, but also these events can be read as directed to (or the result of) external events. Do we have the barefaced minimum of Graham’s asymmetry of contact at the simplest level? Would a body defined by its horizon of closure (by Spinoza imagined to be either a ratio of motion and rest, or a pressed together layer of parts) constitute both a real object, and events within it also possess a “sincerity” of directed re-action, what Graham calls the sensuous object? There seems to be some traction here, but still the concept of internal object tugs against the grain.

This traction is not without consequence for when Graham considers the ultimate question of where or how the connection occurs, he idntifies it as sincerity, the directed expenditure of energy, that  must be the site of the answer:

This must be the site of change in the world. A real object resides in the core of an intention, pressed up
against numerous sensual ones. Somehow, it pierces their colored mists and connects with a real object already in the vicinity but buffered from direct contact. If light can be shed on this mechanism, the nature of the other four types of relation may be clarified as well.

But right here at the cusp of the inanimate Graham draws back from the potential sufficiency of this dynamic, for he finds in the human realm the allure of the aforementioned “allure,” turning to how metaphor breaks down the whole of senuous objects in a liberating sense, allowing the real object of the human being to “poke through” its senuous veil and reach the distant signals of other real things. This is a tremendously poetic and beautiful description and full of potential analysis of the relationship between metaphor, image and thought (reminding us of Nietzsche’s essay“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense”) But while we may make epistemic inroads to internal events of tennis balls, goldfish bowls and airport tarmacs using the widest notion of “sincerity” one finds it quite conceptually unlikely that the same could be said of some concept of “metaphor”.

The reason for this is obvious, and already mentioned. Mental activity, especially the breadth of which that Graham would like to populate the world, simply cannot be characterized by “objecthood,” certainly not sensuous objects of the kind that their “quality of being a whole” which metaphorical allure works to disrupt is an essential character. Here lies the poisoned pawn of Central Clarity Conciousness (CCC), an assumption which will drive Graham’s actor-theory ever back toward the realm of linguistically endowed human beings. Further complicating the issue is that Graham would like to link the disruptions of our essential objects via “allure” to the very mechanism of causation itself. As he describes them, such disruptions almost waken us from our dream of swirling, wind-blown, Lucy-In-The-Sky-of-Diamonds, accidents and strangely buffered objects, to the jutting through of the signals from afar which produce real causation. Just how does Graham see this happening? How do the metaphorical increases of connection between our own internal sensuous objects bring contact with other external objects?:

“….just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one. I make contact with another  object, not through impossible contact with its interior life, but only by brushing its surface in such a manner as to bring its inner life into play. Just as only the opposite poles of magnets make contact, and just as the opposite sexes alone are fertile, it is also the case that two objects of the same type do not directly touch one another.”

By bringing about the linking of sensuous objects in our own mental life, we so to speak stir the inside of other objects so as to inspire (I can think of no better word) internal connections of other objects which would result in causation…real contact. How a bullet seduces  our bodies unto death only brushing our surface.

But what a fantastic theory. If we are to augment it to allow it to cover something more than even only a portion of human articulation we are going to have to unchain it from its object-hood bonds. When I chop at a piece of wood with my axe, I am not “brushing its surface” so as to nudge it into a metaphorizing  allurement action which then opens it up to the possibility to being cleaved in two. Even as lovely a conception this might be, there simply is not enough argumentative ligature to make it remotely hold as an explanation. If indeed we want to maintain the worm-hole conception of causation of inside of object to object, as suggestive as a metaphorical theory of causation is, we are going to have to turn to a much more polyvalent conception of internal senuous event.

First of all, in a bit of digression, we have to admit that aside from the mental object orientedness that drives Graham’s philosophical position, we are really  subject to an infinity of causations continuously. We are being radiated by solar activity, drawn to the earth in gravitous fields, struck by photons that allow us to see, soundwaves allowing us to hear, just to name a bare few of millions upon millions of forces and effects. Even in the confines of a strictly human realm, to view causation as a kind of eruption in the veil of sensuous closure, a special event of allurement, one would have to admit that this is a regular and continous process. Further so, all objects would be undergoing such sincerity driven allurements at such an enormous rate that our bodies (and all bodies) would be semiotically ripping open at the seams. Such a picture would do much to destablize any real “me” object that Graham imagines founds my causal connections to the world. The sites of “sincerity” are everywhere.

But I would like to take up another aspect of Graham’s use of Sincerity and its rather obvious psychological and ethical freight. To call a directionality of an object “sincere” is not just to distinguish it from insincerity, for how can a rose garden be “insincere,” or a dog, as Wittgenstein would like to tell us. It is also to allude to the way in which the directionality of others, and not just human others, allows us to make powerful sense of the world. Because we can see the directionality of the zebra as it reacts to the leap of a lion, the surface evidence of the expenditure of energy in orientation, we too can make ourselves directional towards an important external event. The sincerity of one object links our sincerity to the world, so that the lion, the zebra and I all are sincerely focused and in a certain kind of agreement. Interestingly the same kind of psychological/ethical frieght is carried by another philosopher’s analytical term, Charity. Donald Davidson in his theory of the radical interpreation of others (human beings), argues that we can only make sense of their behaviors if we charitably grant that they are making the most sense possible (and that they are in some way sincere). We must assume the coherence of their thought in order to be able to interpret it. [Here is a fantastically performed ten minute video explanation of the Principle of Charity, entertainingly argued if you have not seen it: Skeptism refuted in Under Ten Minutes]. I would argue that Graham has chosen just the right type of word when he is looking for what it is that reveals the mechanism of connection between sensuous and real objects. The coherent directedness of attention which marks sincerity is intimately related to the coherence of explanation which marks our charitable capacity to interpret others (even if others are lying, we locate their “lie” within a sincerely directed behavior of some kind, even if it be unconscious).

This leads us back to Campanella I believe, the way in which we literally become the things that we know. Our directed intentionality which for our purposes is not composed of objects, but merely of vectors of distinctions, directs us from within to the internal contact with other objects in such a way that we can literally feel because we are one new entity, their internal directedness. We have epistemically subsumed them, changing our own borders. In lived contact, as they are so directed, sincerely, by the order of their own internal coherence toward extra-horizon events, through our mutality of bodies we perceive through their sincerity with the world. In this way causation shoots through the entire assemblage and transformation, through the prosthetic becomings which extend our real bodies out to the furthest reaches of their terminus.

Descartes of all people (who may have been vastly misread as a Representationalist by the Idealist tradition that followed) gives us a very good example of such this kind of mutality of seeing in the figure of the blind man and his cane:

It sometimes doubtless happened to you, while walking in the night without a light through places which are a little difficult, that it became necessary to use a stick in order to guide yourself; and you have then been able to notice that you felt, through the medium of the stick, the diverse objects around you, and that you were even able to tell whether they were trees, or stones, or sand…(Treatise on Diotrics, first discourse)

…just as when the blind man of whom we have spoken above touches some object with his cane, it is certain that the objects do not transmit anything to him except that, by making his cane move in different ways according to their different inherent qualities, they likewise and in some way move the nerves of his hand, and then the places in his brain where the nerves originate. Thus his mind is caused to perceive as many different qualities in these bodies, as there are varieties in the movements that they cause in his brain…(fourth discourse)

Objects Without Sincerity

If we are to grant a sensuous relationship between a stick and its enviroment, then we must be able to say that the sincerity of a blind man’s directional attention is linked to, and signficantly knows the sincerity of the stick. In a very real sense the blind man has become his cane in knowing it. (Descartes uses this analogy to actually explain how vision works, as the rays of light which enter our eyes operate as a kind of prosthetic extension of the human body out into the world, something close in theory to a Semiotic Realism.) In this way, speaking of the cavernous retreat of the stick is a bit obscurant. Yes, the stick can break or fail and much of its reportability disabled, but because our perceptions are not object dominated, this can simply be read as a change of essence. In the end Graham’s essences of objects that fall back into vaccuums never reachable, hiding from every kind of eye, are simply objects without sincerity. And what are objects without sincerity? They are either the spectral creations of philosophers preoccupied with a CCC optical metaphor of what consciousness is, the sense that because what we think is primarily a visualization “parts” must hide, or it is merely the capacity of think of things as fundamentally distinct, made of difference, a groudwork for our own ability to make and distinguish differences.

What I propose, and I do realize that Graham could never accept this because the core inspiration of his philosophy is the matching inversion of objects accomplished by Husserl and Heidegger, one must keep sincerity by discarding the essentialization of mental activity into objects. Seeing them both as two kinds of objects, two sides of a coin, each locked away from each other simply exposes the fundamental problem of Idealism, a problem that Graham himself is locked within his philosophy when begining, rather creatively, with these ingredients. As mentioned above, if Graham were to remain within Idealism and its human-centric philosophy of access, there would be no problem with this at all. In fact he would have on his hands a beautiful, poetic ontology of animate metaphorization which would productively enrich human discriptions of themselves. The problem is that as we leave the capacities of human beings the very picture of mental activity as object representation with confined borders and bejeweling accidents breaks down (if it ever was sufficient in the first place, which I contend it was not). If we want to reach down into the authenticity of non-human and even abiotic actors and regard their own sincerities as actorly and also maintain a vigorous, vivid sense of what causation is, the illusive white shadow of un-sincere object essences as products of Representationalism must leave the stage. We can retain a strong sense of essence in the manner that Campanella and Spinoza discuss it, but this is under a process of self-transformation and assimilation (in terms of real contact, the assimilation goes both  ways!). We regularly and emphatically read the world through our embodiment of others, our prosthetic/cybernetic combination with others, divining the world, so to speak, through our sincere reading of their sincerities.

There is certainly more than enough room for Graham’s concept of Allure, the way that seeming accidents which are part of our patterned coherences and also not, the sparkle of something that catches our eye, the dark stain spreading inordinately. In fact I argue that our consciousness is not at all directed towards objects marked by their quality of wholeness, but rather is composed of the attention to allure itself. The pure center of attentive direction, of sincerity, is not an object, but a living line continually breaking open bringing the forces of coherence into play. Such allurement is not the condition for causation (for phsycial interactions is not mind-dependent), but rather the operation of dynamic coherence itself, that which makes a body a body, the way that it endures, seeking a homeostasis amid change. Thus I can embrace Graham’s praise for metaphor as means for productive connection; it is just not the only means for building the connection between objects or bodies [I discuss the possible place for metaphor in the otherwise taken to be unfriendly philosophy of Spinoza in these two posts: Spinoza’s Confusion of Ideas, and then, Metaphor ; Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination ].  Metaphor, or detaching allurement, is simply not the only path to connection, and certainly not its precondition in the abiotic world. In this way we have to disagree with Graham’s ultimate conclusion that all causal events are founded upon an occasion of allurement, an allure that opens the door to causation:

The separation of a thing from its quality is no longer a local phenomenon of human experience, but instead is the root of all relations between real objects, including causal relations. In other words, allure belongs to ontology as a whole, not to the special metaphysics of animal perception. Relations between all real objects, including mindless chunks of dirt, occur only by means of some form of allusion.

We leave this conclusion as insufficient not because it is too poetic, but because it is not poetic enough, it does not touch at the heart and power of what poieõ, what “making”,  is. It does not go deep enough into the object nor the object’s composition, or the full embrace of sincerity driven down into the abiotic, non-representational levels.

Do I believe that in-animate objects can and do “read” the sincerity of other objects, and thus in some sense “become” them. I do. Air molecules that reverberate and carry a sound in some sense sincerely express their own directionality such that they read the sincerity of molecules near them. I do not include Graham’s notion that the outsides of these objects do not touch because really under these circumstances the borders of things is ever under dispute or change, and so the notion of “touching” or “contact” also is under revision. I do think though that his concept of asymmetry of intentionality, taken as a whole (I would simply prefer a horizoned direction) gives strong light to just what perplexing thing Campanella meant when he said “To know is to be” and that our entity is turned into the entity of another thing. What I would amend is that this assimilation is best seen as cybernetic/prosthetic, a communication of sincerities across bounds within new epistemic and still ontological horizons. It is not just that I am able to hear the distant signals of real objects through the veil of sensous ideas, poked through. Real power is simply not that isolative, not so pale. It is rather that my body is directly composed of such connections, the transferal of sense-making coherences, cause on cause, composed of in part my capacity to read the causal links and sincerities of others. And as a human being this consists of the very real ontological difference that causal explanation makes in my own person. If I know how something works, know it through its causes, my own capacity to act in the world  is also increased.

Related to this is something that Graham only slightly touches on in his essay, that there must be a real object on the other side of the connection otherwise it is not a connection at all. This is the important vector which distinguishes mere mental pro-fascinations from real changes in the capacity to act. If I were a racist I could be trapped in the various fantasies I generate about a particular person of color. What is it that disguishes these “sincerities” from genuine contact? This is vital distinction, one that cuts to the bone of real power in the world, but as far as I can tell it is not one that Graham wants to link to causation itself. This missing discernment is I believe related to Graham’s almost poetic notion that the real object of us is somehow always cut off from the effects of others, or that real connections are somehow mind-dependent. There is no sense from him that we are already causally bound to not only our environment and to others in such a way that our identification of the nature of these bounds is paramount in any path to greater activity or power. It is rather a philosophical picture, perhaps the picture of an artist, of how it is that I can get my isolated, cavernous, retreating self connected to the distant signals of other things. For this reason I suspect that the mechanisms for distingushing real contact from simple sincerity of attention is quite undeveloped in Graham’s theory of causation. Causation which in many normative descriptions of the world assumes a cornerstone placement if only as a barrier or limit one runs up against, in Graham’s approach becomes one of the very last things explained (and as yet remains so at least in terms of the inanimate). But this is important because we want to be able to distinguish between our mere fantasies about the world and others, and concrete possibilities of change. As such, in need  of such, we cannot simply turn to the allurement of accidents of essences, or a metaphorization of sensuous objects, for such imaginative creations on their own no more lead to an assured connection with the real objects we think we have before our Cartesian eyes.

If we are going to talk effectively about changes of power and activity in the world it is principally to the difference between a non-connective sincerity and a connective one, a difference which can only be thought of in terms of degree, for all sincerities  are connective to something I would contend (there are no brains in vats). I will leave the development of this aside, only to suggest that when we turn to what causation is, our approach to sincerity necessarily involves a charity which makes the sincerity of others readable, and if readable to any degree, inhabitable and transforming in the very real Campanella sense. Interpretation of others and the world is bodily assemblage in which what is internal to other things in some sense becomes internal to use, thus indeed, the molten centers of objects do touch.

[I want to say thank you to Graham Harman for providing one more latch-point for the thinking of Tommaso Campanella whose philosophy I seek to renew.]


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